When I found myself wedged between a filthy tube door and a sweaty man’s armpit for the fifth morning in a row on my daily commute to work two years ago, something inside me snapped. In that moment I realised that, somewhere along the line (no pun intended), city living had ceased to be fun. When the train pulled into my station and I elbowed my way off – showing scant regard for my fellow passengers’ wellbeing – it further dawned on me that I had become the embodiment of the angry commuter stereotype I had always detested. The shock of these realisations was enough to make me reassess my priorities in life – and take the arguably rather extreme action of booking a place at the Sivananda Yoga Vedenta Dhanwantari Ashram in Kerala.
The ashram itself is situated in the foothills of the Sahyadri Mountains beside the Neyyar Dam, which is about one hour from the town of Thiruvananthapuram. It is surrounded by twelve acres of thick woodland and is nothing short of idyllic. Founded by Swami Vishnudevananda in 1978 in memory of his Guru, Swami Sivananda, it is part of the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers. Prior to its current incarnation as an ashram, it was an Ayurvedic healing centre, and this ancient life science is still carried out there today as a complementary therapy to the yoga and meditation classes.
On the 1st and 16th of every month the ashram welcomes guests onto its two week long ‘yoga vacations.’ These courses are based on the ‘Five Points of Yoga’ for health and happiness, as outlined by Swami Vishnudevananda: Proper exercise, proper breathing, proper relaxation, proper diet and positive thinking and meditation. During their stay, visitors are asked to adhere to all of the ashram rules (surrendering mobile phones at reception being the one that gave me palpitations) and to attend all activities in the daily ashram schedule (which includes four hours of yoga, one and a half hours of chanting, one hour of meditation and two hours of talks).
It didn’t take me long to learn that ashram life is no holiday. The morning wake up bell is unceremoniously rung at 5.20am, and again at 5.50am to tell guests they have ten minutes to reach the morning satsang (chanting) class on the roof. For my karma yoga (selfless service) duty I had to roll out the mats and put down the instruments before each morning satsang. Whilst this did mean I had to get up even earlier than everyone else, I was delighted that I managed to avoid the kitchen and toilet duties (not very karmic of me, granted, but true nonetheless). At 6am we all sat down to meditate for half an hour, after which we sang songs from the chant book. The ashram director, Nataraj, who hails from Zimbabwe, would then run through the plan for the day and do a reading.
At 7.30am we would gather beneath the tree in the main courtyard for tea before our first yoga class of the day. This ended shortly before 10am when we would file into the dining room and sit on the floor to eat brunch – with our hands and in complete silence. With meat, fish, eggs, chilli and garlic off the menu, I was relieved to find the food to be excellent as well as wholesome.
After brunch there is a period of time allocated to karma yoga duties, but as mine were at specific times in the morning and afternoon I was usually free to have a sneaky sunbathe and a nap. At 1.30pm we had another tea break and at 2pm Nataraj would give a lecture (topics during my stay included an introduction to the different Hindu gods and the background to bhakti, or devotional, yoga). The second yoga class runs from 3.30pm to 5.30pm, and dinner is at 6pm, with a final satsang class in the evening at 8pm. We were almost always finished by half past nine and tucked up in bed by ten.
In the first couple of days I struggled not only with the early starts and lack of communication with the outside world, but also with myself. On more than one occasion I caught myself wishing I hadn’t said something immediately after saying it, and I continually beat myself up for being too chatty, loud and open. I also struggled to understand the religious aspect; my ignorance of Hinduism made me feel confused and frustrated. Strangely, I also found that in the rare moments I did have time to myself, I was at a loss for what to do. The ashram encourages visitors to read only spiritual books during their stay, so I bought a book from the boutique written by Swami Sivananda, but I was barely two chapters in before I guiltily reached for the trashy novel hidden deep within my rucksack.
Thanks to a course I had taken in London before flying to India, I was at least getting on pretty well with the yoga. Doing it twice a day is exhausting, but paradoxically also energising. Perhaps that’s not so strange given that a large part of yogic practice is the breathing, which helps you train your lungs to take in more oxygen and therefore function more efficiently.
The meditation, however, was something else entirely. How anybody was meant to concentrate with the constant clacking of crows and wailing of radios was beyond me, not to mention the distant sound of roaring lions from the neighbouring safari park. By day three I was exasperated, but then something amazing happened. At the end of one afternoon yoga class we were lying on our backs for the relaxation. I was listening to the soft voice of our instructor as she gently guided us through the process, when all of a sudden I felt I was being pulled up by an invisible force. It occurred to me I could no longer feel my fingers or toes, the only sensation I was aware of being the upward pressure in my chest. At first I panicked and struggled to catch my breath, but then the thought crossed my mind that I might be about to have an out of body experience. Excitement replaced panic, and I attempted to calm my breathing and focus on lifting up and out of my body. The moment I concentrated on it, however, the sensation returned and I felt myself physically drop back down onto the mat. I left the class feeling exhilarated.
The exhilaration was short lived. By the end of the first week I was physically and mentally exhausted. There had been moments of absolute elation, granted, but these were almost always tempered by moments of despair. I felt I wasn’t ‘doing’ ashram life properly; that I was a failure. This came to a head on Friday night, when our normal evening satsang was replaced with a puja (worship) ceremony in the temple. I was looking forward to the ceremony, but when I sat down in front of my little pile of turmeric and flowers (offerings to the all-pervading goddess of the universe) I felt uncomfortable, and by the end of the thirty minute chanting ritual I felt positively claustrophobic. I ran back to my room after it finished, taking big gulps of air and trying to calm myself.
The following morning, in lieu of our normal morning satsang, we gathered at the gates at 6am to go on a silent walk to the side of a beautiful lake overlooking the Agastya mountain range. As I sat on the side of the lake with my peers, watching the early morning mist rise up from the water’s surface, a wave of contentment washed over me, and I wondered whether perhaps this experience was changing me for the better after all.
A couple of days later in one of our afternoon lectures we discussed the topic of happiness. Nataraj told us that back in his native Zimbabwe he was a doctor, and explained in part what brought him to the ashram almost a decade ago.
“People asked me why I was leaving such an important job which enabled me to help so many others,” he said, “but how could I really help others when I was unhappy, and was therefore failing to help myself? Is a doctor who is scowling as he writes his prescriptions making others happy? No. Happiness is contagious, so if you can be happy in yourself you will automatically bring happiness to others. To be truly happy, one must realise that happiness comes from within.”
Over the course of my last week at the ashram, Nataraj’s words sank in and I began to forgive myself for being less than perfect. As I relaxed, so I felt happier to be a part of ashram life; I realised it was okay to come to a place like that and still be myself, and that I didn’t have to fit into a specific spiritual mould to be a part of the community. I also realised that I didn’t have to subscribe to every rule in Swami Sivananda’s book to be able to take something away from his teachings and incorporate it into my life.
On my last day at the ashram, as I stood in the queue to collect my mobile phone, it dawned on me that for the first time in my adult life I had managed to transcend the stresses and strains of everyday life and tap into an inner reservoir of peace and contentment. I didn’t doubt that over time the stressors would creep back in and the reservoir run dry but, as I stepped into the bright sunshine of the outside world, I felt happy. And I felt free.